Why are teachers invisible?

Embed from Getty Images

I was genuinely surprised when I realised that a debate organised by the Institute of Education in London (IoE), about the use of evidence-based methods by teachers, had not a single practising teacher on the panel. Yet shortly after posting my thoughts, someone pointed out to me that the IoE is organising a whole series of such debates and there are hardly any teachers involved in any of them.

I find this outrageous. And yet I suspect you think I’m a little eccentric for finding this outrageous. We have all been conditioned into accepting that others speak on our behalf; that this is normal. And yet it is at odds with other professions.

I don’t have an issue with anyone talking about education. I don’t want to silence academics, heads of quangos or think-tank wonks. And I certainly don’t want to push politicians out of the discussion because they, at least, have to take some account of public opinion.

But a discussion made up of only these people misses out on a key perspective. Bureaucrats and academics like to present a front that suggests that all is well, all debates are settled and there is a consensus about how to move forward. They disdain debate on social media which they tend to perceive as rough and uncouth. Yet, we all know what happens when you design education policies around such a consensus: Scotland’s failed Curriculum for Excellence.

For their part, politicians, and their think-tank brains, have political agendas. There is nothing wrong with that but it does mean that ideas about explicit instruction and a powerful curriculum get conflated with back-to-basics rhetoric and talk of the importance of ‘western values’ while, in the other camp, ideas about increased school funding get rolled up with Dewey-inspired teaching methods and the latest education gimmicks. You can see what happens: something the politicians really care about gets associated with something they don’t really understand and so they feel the need to push both.

This is where teachers could add a vital perspective. They could inform the public about what it means to enact some of these ideas. They could knock some of the corners off these political agendas if given the chance. But we are invisible.

Why?

A clue comes from one of the few regular outlets for teacher opinions; The Guardian’s Secret Teacher column. Why does it have to be secret? Because many teachers don’t feel safe to speak about their profession. This is why we have so many anonymous teacher bloggers. Some schools, and even state education systems, have social media policies that effectively ban teachers from posting their opinions. This is plainly wrong. There should be a right to professional comment where teachers, and other expert groups, have a right to express their views on areas covered by their expertise provided that they don’t share confidential information. It would be in the public interest because the public would benefit from informed opinion.

But there are also cultural issues. We are so used to the empty chair that the media doesn’t look to teachers for comment. It seeks quotes from, and interviews, supposed experts, many of whom have never taught in a classroom for as much as five minutes. These people are sexier than teachers, it seems.

I’m not sure what the solution is apart from to keep speaking. If it is safe for you to do so, then you should write a blog and you should pitch op-eds to your local and national papers. It’s pretty hard going and you’ll get a lot of rejections, but nobody is going to change the culture for us. Let’s muscle our way into that empty chair and speak for ourselves.

14 thoughts on “Why are teachers invisible?

  1. Well said Gregory.

    I will definitely be starting a teaching/education blog this year, probably very soon. Just a matter of taking that first step, as always…

  2. Not eccentric at all to be surprised by this, it is outrageous at first glance. I wonder if it happens elsewhere? Eg: Do groups of academics get together to talk about air pilots use of evidence to inform practice without involving them? Or to talk about doctors? I very much doubt it. Two things:

    1. What is going on here with those sorts of conferences is what Taleb calls “Lecturing birds how to fly” http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/Triana-fwd.pdf I’d summarise but Taleb does it much better in discussing finance academics at Davos. The process is the exact same as what happens in education though where practice by real practitioners is ignored by top down theorising. It’s also exactly why we need more work in the style of Doug Lemov which is bottom up based on observed practice.
    2. This IOE conference is exactly where and why I see the prog/trad dichotomy as being useful but insufficient to explain within group differences and between group similarities. It is only when we add another axis running from top down control to bottom up in political compass style that things like this IOE conference can be properly attributed. For example this IOE conference by not including teachers in a discussion about how teachers use research can not be anything other than authoritarian/top down by attempting to establish a centralising and controlling view which I suspect will be broadly progressive.

  3. Michael Gove has taken a lot of flak for saying that we’ve had enough of experts, but then his critics have no idea as to what kind of experts we find when professional educators convene.

    Take synthetic phonics, an area where Britain has unquestionably led the English-speaking world. In 1975, Lord Bullock (a Historian) was chosen to lead an inquiry into the teaching of literacy. After much discussion amongst the great and the good, his report concluded that “there is no one method, medium, approach, device or philosophy that holds the key to the process of learning how to read” and it criticised “the unsubtle practice of encouraging children to build up words by ‘sounding’ letters as a routine practice”.

    Around this time, Sue Lloyd was teaching beginning reading at Woods Loke in Lowestoft, which is about as far away from the centres of culture and learning as it is possible to get in England. Her school had adopted the initial teaching alphabet, and she was impressed with how quickly children learned to read it. However, the problems of converting to conventional orthography (and the utter confusion when children transferred in or out of schools that didn’t use it) soon made it untenable. Sue, who qualified as a teacher with a Cert Ed and had no degree level qualification, set about designing a programme which relied exclusively on the “the unsubtle practice of encouraging children to build up words by ‘sounding’ letters”, and it was published by Chris Jolly. Effectively, what we now know as ‘synthetic phonics’ was first introduced at Woods Loke.

    As the evidence for phonics mounted in the 1990s, the profession organised a rearguard action that resulted in the 1998 National Literacy Strategy. Although it was heralded as a ‘return to phonics’, it was in fact a reiteration of the old ‘mixed methods’ philosophy espoused by the Bullock Commission; of the 315 curricular recommendations for Key Stage One, only five mentioned teaching blending skills. It was too little, too late: when the results of the Clackmannanshire trials were announced, an article in the TES conceded that

    “A radical way of teaching children to read has easily outperformed the Government’s preferred literacy strategy. [It] has produced remarkable results even in the most deprived schools…it ought to spark a serious rethink of the Government’s National Literacy Strategy in England”.

    One of the reasons why synthetic phonics ultimately prevailed was the distress of educated and influential parents whose own children had been failed by the conventional wisdom espoused by the closed ranks of educational experts. Tony Blair was one such parent, and the rest is history.

  4. think tank wonks: I love it.

    But seriously: it is very scary that teachers are excluded: it reeks of ‘Yes Minister-ism’ (currently watching on YouTube), designed to supress cross currents of debate to achieve a polished presentation. Shocking. A healthy profession, let alone a democracy requires vigorous debates. When I’m king, I’ll require all professionals to vigorously put their cases in public by whatever professional means are available!

  5. I suppose it should be added that synthetic phonics is something of a special case; of all the ideologically-driven ideas espoused by professional educators, none has such obvious and unequivocally disastrous consequences as ineffective reading pedagogy.

  6. Excellent. I love this:We are so used to the empty chair that the media doesn’t look to teachers for comment. It seeks quotes from, and interviews, supposed experts, many of whom have never taught in a classroom for as much as five minutes. These people are sexier than teachers, it seems.- Expert jabber is sexier because it’s distanced from messy lived experience. We see this with many professions and topics of social problems, likely because a so called expert can offer convenient ‘solutions’ which typically don’t translate well to actual application in real life. Lofty. Nice but not always useable. I think teachers are invisible because children and the struggles of family and equality are invisible. We hide or avoid what we have no fixes for. Trauma informed care is helping to provide options. Good questions like yours also help.

  7. I believe you are being harsh as well as outrageously eccentric. I watched one of the debates and was so impressed with, at least, one of the individuals that I bought Lucy Crehan’s book on reviewing education in other countries. I actually suspect it is difficult to persuade “hardly any” full time teachers to attend such panels – many not having not got the time, or energy to mug up a panoply of topics

    1. The one I saw online was about evidence-based teaching and the role of school research leads came up in discussion. However, the panelists were unclear about what research leads do. Don’t you think it would have been good to get a school research lead on the panel to discuss that? Research leads would also be able to address many school-related issues and I’m pretty sure you could get a London-based research lead to turn up to a debate at the IoE. What would they need to ‘mug up’ on? They would certainly be as well informed as a journalist such as Ann Mroz.

      1. Greg, Apparently you are outrageously eccentric in thinking that a professional teacher could have something to say about education research. That the idea that teachers might have taken part in a study or pilot project and have something to say about it is unthinkable. I have been trying to think of another profession where someone might feel like writing that where it would be both true and a worthwhile contribution.

        The problem apparently is teachers have no time to learn about research in their field. In Ontario the school year runs for 10 months which includes 3 weeks of breaks and 8 days dedicated to professional development. I can appreciate people have all sorts of things they want to do in their breaks but that only an eccentric would ever use part of it to study up on the latest research in their chosen vocation is quite sad.

  8. I can’t believe that teachers are not encouraged to blog. Opps. Yes I can! Now, if I were boss, it would be encouragement: get out there are write, put down your ideas, observations, irritations, pet hates and peeves. Out of conversation only good can come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.